A little over three years ago, a game that seemed like it might just have what it took to stand up to Final Fantasy appeared. Xenosaga Episode I had amazing graphics, an engrossing and epic story in a far-flung future, and the challenging gameplay to back it up. It had more ambition and polish than any other contender.
Things... didn't work out.
Xenosaga Episode II followed two years later, scaled way back, its story mostly told in flashbacks and its gameplay oversimplified. Predictably, many of the gamers responsible for the original game's well-deserved success ignored it. Now, the series screeches to a halt. At some point, Namco decided that going for Final Fantasy's jugular was a mistake.
The good news? Episode III recovers a lot of ground that the second game gave up. Although it's better in every way, it's still nowhere near the no-expense-spared epic that the original was. That said, it's a serious and engrossing RPG, and a dignified send-off for a troubled series.
The strength of the Xenosaga games remains the story. By the time Episode III's first disc is through, it has boiled its universe-wide space opera all the way down to the level of the series' heroine, Shion Uzuki, and then ramped it all back up again. It's a harrowing tale that encompasses both the deeply personal and the infinitely important in a way that no other RPG narrative quite has.
As with most RPGs, the core of Xenosaga's gameplay is a turn-based battle system. Episode III 's battles are speedy and have a nice flexibility, but it takes time to tease the pleasures out of the gameplay. Once you start unlocking the good skills and nailing the strategy - two-thirds of the way through the game, thanks to the cutscenes - is when it gets interesting. If you pull everything off right, the battles are smooth like butter; screw up and it's easy to die. Sometimes you're on the knife-edge, but the game is fair.
But at this late date, you won't find anything here that's much above average for the PS2, a system blessed with a huge variety of solid, similar games. The character growth system and mech battles are similarly just-above-the-curve, but below inspirational. The gameplay is just as good as it has to be - to keep you going in between the massive bombs the story keeps dropping.
Yes, the place where Xenosaga always makes it mark is the story. If you thought the story-to-gameplay ratio of prior entries was low, though, this one is probably the worst offender. The good news is that the tale is very satisfying: being the last game, it's intense from its first moments, and only gets sharper as it goes. You will see big, climactic things happening. Routinely. Not many RPGs can promise that.
That's not to say it never stumbles, though. Some scenes obviously didn't make much sense to begin with; though the voices are mostly quite good, others are badly dubbed. Worst, the game is heavily censored. Namco Bandai, in its efforts to get a T rating, has sucked all of the blood out of the game. Normally it wouldn't much matter, but major plot points of this game center around brutal violence - including the climactic scene in which the biggest twist in the plot of the entire series is revealed. It's an insult to the fans that have tread the rocky path this series has taken.
So does Xenosaga end with a bang, or with a whimper? It's tough to say. There's no doubt that this is not the grand finale the creators set out to show us all those years ago. But the tale of Shion and KOS-MOS, the Gnosis... that did get its end, told as well as anything in the rest of the series. The fact that the game can even manage to hold our attention through its endless chin-wagging is proof that the original concept was sound. Ambition may have outstripped ability, but there's no doubt that fans of the series will find much to love about this entry, flawed as any of the rest of them. That's the best we could have hoped for.